Antonio Gramsci: 130 years since his birth

(By Leandros Bolaris, first published in Workers Solidarity, newspaper of SEK)

Antonio Gramsci was born in Sardinia on January 22, 1891. He dedicated his life to the struggle for workers ‘revolution and to the building of a revolutionary party of the workers’ vanguard. For this he paid with his life in prison under Mussolini’s fascism in April 1937. He is the Marxist who related the experience of the soviets, or workers councils, in the Russian Revolution to the conditions of the then developed capitalism of Western Europe.

Gramsci joined the left as a student, through the study of philosophy and art. But the city where he studied would soon become the focus of a militant labor movement. Turin was the cradle of the Italian car industry. With the end of the First World War, the labor movement in the region found itself at the forefront of the wave of struggles and radicalization that embraced Italy and has become known as the Two Red Years.

Workers Councils were the form of organization that moved this movement forward. They had their roots in the “internal committees” that were elected in the factory departments during the war. However, in the class struggles that unfolded, their action began to generalize. At the end of 1919 about 150 thousand workers were represented in the workers councils aiming to impose workers’ control over production.

Gramsci and a number of comrades from the left wing of the Socialist Party founded a newspaper, L’Ordine Nuovo, which soon became the “voice of the factory councils”. The Ordinovistsi – the Gramsci current – argued that the factory councils should embrace all workers, and that they could play the role that the Soviets played in the Russian Revolution: to be instruments from below for the worker’s battles but also forms of organization for the new society where the majority will collectively and democratically determine its fate. It was the “model of the proletarian state,” as Gramsci wrote in L’Ordine Nuovo in October 1919.

This message spread like wildfire to the working class of Turin. But it did not extend beyond the borders of that area. In September 1920 came the decisive confrontation. The employers refused to sign a collective agreement with the metal worker’s union. A strike began in Milan that soon spread throughout Italy. And this time the workers occupied the factories, more than 2 million participated in the occupations. In many of them they set up “red guards” for self-defense. In others they continued production under their own control.

But instead of revolution, the movement’s leaders led it to compromise. In January 1921 the revolutionaries – among them Gramsci – left the Socialist Party and founded the Communist Party of Italy. But already at that moment the movement was retreating and the fascists were gaining strength. The young party had to give this battle but it was not properly prepared. NThe notions of sectarianism prevailed, rejecting any initiative of a united front against the fascist threat.

Through a long process, Gramsci formulateds his ideas for a different party intervention and finally took akes over the leadership of the party. The difference became apparent when the fascist regime faced a major crisis following the assassination of reformist Socialist MP Giacomo Mateotti. The anti-fascist outburst of rage led the opposition parties to leave parliament and form their own committee.

The Communist Party participated in this “broad” initiative but with its own slogans of action. This was a huge difference: the committee of the opposition expected that the solution would be given by the “institutions” and specifically the king. Instead, the Gramsci-led communists said the solution would be a general strike that would pave the way for the overthrow of fascism. In this way the working class would counterattack and gain the hegemony of all the social strata that had set in motion against Mussolini’s fascism.

In January 1926, Gramsci presented the generalization of the party experience and its new line at its third congress. These are the Lyon Theses (the conference took place there). In this text the united front and the transitional demands (“intermediate” in the text) were treated from the perspective of the “organization and mobilization of the working class” and its ability to lead the “anti-fascist and anti-capitalist struggle.” Any such demand “must always be clear to the masses that if it were carried out, it would lead to an acceleration of the revolutionary process and the beginning of greater battles” until the greater, revolutionary seizure of power. Here is an example: 

This must be achieved in particular with respect to agitation against the monarchy. The monarchy is one of the props of the fascist régime; it is Italian fascism’s State form. The anti-monarchic mobilization of the mass of the Italian population is one of the aims which the Communist Party must set itself. It will serve effectively to unmask certain of the so called anti-fascist groups who have coalesced in the Aventine. It must, however, always be accompanied by agitation and struggle directed against the other basic pillars of the fascist régime, the industrial plutocracy and the landowners. In anti-monarchic agitation, the problem of the form of the State will, moreover, always be posed by the Communist Party in close connection with the problem of the class content which the communists intend to give the State. In the recent past [June 1925], the connection between these problems was achieved by the party through basing its political activity on the slogan: “Republican Assembly on the basis of Workers’ and Peasants’ Committees; Workers’ Control of Industry; Land to the Peasants.

Revolutionary party

At the same time, in the debate that ensued, Gramsci still gives us the tools today to understand what a revolutionary party should aim to be. A “part of the class,” the “political organization of the vanguard of the proletariat” which, even if small, must always aim to “become a mass party.” This contrasts with views that argue that the party is generally and abstractly an “organ of the class,” essentially an association of individuals with a common reference to a program.

The thread of Gramsci’s political action, however, was cut short the same year he was arrested by the fascist regime that had taken power. The fascist prosecutor stated at the trial that “we must stop this brain from working for twenty years.” They did not succeed. Gramsci continued to ponder, study, and write for years. The product of this work is his Prison Notebooks (notes and essays written between 1929 and 1935).

Their fragmentary character and abstract language – after all they were personal working notes – have allowed for an interpretation that detaches them from his revolutionary politics and turns Gramsci into a harmless academic. At the same time, their selective use by the leadership of the Italian Communist Party after the war turned him into a forerunner of the “historic compromise” and the parliamentary path within the institutions of the bourgeois state.

But this is not the real Gramsci. For him, Marxism remained the “philosophy of action,” the theory of the struggle for the liberation of the working class. And the concepts he develops in the Prison Notebooks are part of his effort to broaden the foundations of the revolutionary strategy.

Gramsci explains, for example, that the ruling class rules not only by naked violence, but also by extracting the consent of the “subordinate classes” through an entire system of reproduction of its ideas. It is this “hegemony” that ensures the perpetuation of its rule. But the ideas of “common sense” are not the only ones that exist in the minds of workers. Alongside them, mixed, are the ideas generated by the daily experience of exploitation and resistance. He writes:

One could say that they [workers] have two theoretical consciousnesses (or a contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in [their] activity and which in reality unites [them] with all [their] fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which [they] have inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.

Reformist parties rely on this contradictory consciousness to tie the labor movement to the limits of capitalism. For Gramsci, on the other hand, the role of the revolutionary party is to construct, generalize and “homogenize” the “praxis” – the struggles of the working class to maximize their dynamic and potential, that is, the overthrow of capitalism.

By Leandros Bolaris